Authority and context: Two types of power

The Forge paradigm of RPG design taught me something very important: the power of your character is incidental, it is the power of the players that matters.  The Forge has, rightly I think, primarily defined power in roleplaying as authority distribution.  Who has authority to say what things about what aspects of play and have those things stick?

Taking these two things together, it becomes clear that distributing authority is an important design consideration.  If it is important that players have power, and they primarily derive power from authority, then who has what authority is a good thing to think about.  However, I don’t think that authority is the only component of power.  There is at least one more, though there may be others I have not yet identified.

That other component of power is context.  If Harry (the player) has authority over Sally (the character), and Bob (the player) has authority over Frank (the character), and mechanically both characters have the same mechanical input into the game, it might appear that the two players have equal power over and within the game.  But things are not that simple.

Imagine that Harry has been a member of the group for years, and that he’s played Sally for all those years.  Sally is a complex character, one the players are invested in to one degree or another, and most importantly Sally has an extensive fictional history with the group that has been demonstrated in play.  Sally has a rich context that has been ‘shown not told’.  Further imagine that Bob is new, it’s his first night.  Thus his character Frank is an unknown quantity to the group.  Frank may have a back story, but that’s all it is: backstory.  The group hasn’t seen Frank in action, and thus any fictional action that Frank takes will be viewed from a clean perspective.

Harry, with Sally, seems to have more power than Bob does with Frank.  This is because any fictional choice Sally makes will be thematically interpreted in terms of the context of all her past decisions in play.  This imbues those choices with more force and meaning.  This does not mean that Bob is screwed and can’t contribute, but his ability to make thematic statements is significantly less than Harry’s.  It’s not a question of authority, but one of context*.

*I admit that, in a sense, this is still about authority.  Who has authority over context-rich fictional elements.  However, I don’t see any simple way to equally distribute authority if that is the case, and I feel that shifting the idea of authority in that way weakens it severely as a useful term.

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4 Responses to “Authority and context: Two types of power”

  1. Ian Burton-Oakes says:

    This is a nice point, but I’m really curious if you think there are any good ways of assuaging the differential of power granted by that context and history.

  2. Fred says:

    Ian, I think it’s something to be recognized at this point, rather than “fixed”.

  3. Rahvin says:

    I would suggest that there is a different between the amount of authority granted to a player and the amount used. The fact that Harry can exert more influence in this dynamic of the game isn’t necessarily a factor contributed by the environment of the game, even if its primary factors can be traced to environmental game dynamics.

    Consider this situation: Bob is more experienced with role-playing games, well-read, older, and generally more imaginative. Let’s assume that you’re right on all assumption and Harry dominates thematic play, but Bob manages to impress the other players by providing clever tactics and techniques into critical scenes. Not thematic, not even lasting past the session, but clever in the moment. Do we now say that Harry has somehow been penalized by the game? Likewise, it is Bob’s experience with games — a factor traced back to environmental game dynamics — that makes him better at tactics and clever play, but that’s still not a feature of the game.

    The inequality of players to impact the game the game in specific ways is a feature of the players, not a flaw of the game environment.

  4. Thomas Robertson says:

    Sorry I didn’t get to this earlier, but here’s my quick answer:

    When I use the term ‘game’ here, I’m talking about the social instance of play, not the thing published and read. Part of the social instance of play is the social context. So if there’s a player who’s just a jerk and no one likes him, that’s going to impact how play goes. The game isn’t penalizing him, but he is penalized in the game.

    I think context for characters (and other narrative items like settings and such) matters in the same way. It’s another point of difference in the social context, but it’s one that is shaped through play itself.


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